NUJ seeks clarification on referendum


The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has written to the Referendum Commission seeking clarification of the implications for journalists of the 30th amendment to the Constitution, which will be put to voters on Thursday.

The referendum will, if passed, allow the the Houses of the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries into matters said to be of “general public importance”.

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said the union had received a number of enquiries from members fearful of the implications for the practice of journalism, including the protection of confidential sources of information and confidential documentation in the possession of media organisations and individual journalists.

Mr Dooley said, however, the union had not taken a position in relation to the referendum and would not be making a specific recommendation as to how members should vote.

The union has written to the commission chairman, Dr Bryan McMahon, and said it would make the response of the commission available as a guide to members.

“As a union representing professional journalists we would be concerned at the prospect of the Oireachtas undermining the significant advances made in relation to the rights of journalists to protect confidential information, in the public interest,” Mr Dooley said in a statement.

He said the union had always favoured the concept of parliamentary inquiry and its concerns related to “the possible implications of the current proposed amendment”. “This should not be interpreted as opposition to the principle that elected representatives should have the power to carry out inquiries in appropriate circumstances and with appropriate safeguards.”

The Supreme Court has vindicated the right of journalists to protect confidential sources of information in the public interest in cases such as Mahon and Others v Keena and Kennedy.

In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld an appeal by former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy, and public affairs correspondent Colm Keena against a High Court divisional court ruling that they should reveal their sources.

The NUJ said the proposed Constitutional amendment allowed the Oireachtas “with due regard to the principles of fair procedure”, to “determine the balance between the rights of persons and the public interest”.

Its concerns centred on how the Oireachtas will define the public interest, the union said.

“We have specifically asked: In determining the balance what obligation is there upon the Oireachtas to take into account the findings of the Supreme Court, such as in Mahon and Others v Keena and Kennedy?”

The union also asked whether the Oireachtas could set aside rights already upheld by the Supreme Court, and whether there were circumstances in which, as a consequence of the proposed amendment, the Oireachtas could compel journalists to reveal the identity of confidential sources of information.

“In the event that the 30th amendment is accepted by the electorate we will be seeking specific commitments from Government in relation to the protection of confidential journalistic sources of information,” Mr Dooley said.

He said the enabling Bill could provide such protection, but ultimately it was for the courts to vindicate the Constitutional rights of every citizen.